Indignation is a new film adapted from a Philip Roth novel. So if you’re familiar with Philip Roth, and the picture stays true to the spirit of his writing, you know that it will cut to the bone. I’m happy to report that it does just that, subtly but effectively.
The time is 1951. Logan Lerman plays a Jewish teenager in Newark named Marcus Messner. We meet him at a funeral service for a neighbor, a soldier killed in the Korean War. Marcus’s father seems unnerved by this event—his son will soon be going to college in Ohio, and the father goes into agonies of worry that something may happen to his boy. This neurotic fearfulness is so out of control that it alienates Marcus from his father.
Once he settles in at college, Marcus focuses on studying, resisting pressures to get involved in social activities, either in the one Jewish fraternity on campus or with the two Jewish roommates the college has selected for him. Everyone, however, is required to go to chapel a certain number of times per semester, and this especially angers him, not because he’s a Jew, but because he’s an atheist. Then he meets a beautiful young woman, a fellow student named Olivia Hutton, and played by Sarah Gadon. They go on a date, but Olivia’s forwardness, her sexual precocity (remember, this is 1951), is a shock to Marcus. As his relationship with her continues, it becomes clear that she is a deeply troubled person.
Indignation is the first film directed by James Schamus, who up until now has been a high profile screenwriter, notably for director Ang Lee, in such films as The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He adapted the Roth novel himself for this movie, and it’s very faithful to the book. There’s a strong sense of concentration here, on the repressive culture of the fifties in America, and the film sometimes creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, as Marcus struggles essentially alone, without much help or understanding from anyone except Olivia.
Then right in the middle of the film Schamus does something unusual—he gives us a very long scene in the Dean’s office, between Marcus and the Dean of the College, played with wonderful pomposity by Tracy Letts. Most scenes in American films don’t go this long. It’s considered risky. This one pays off, bringing the intellectual and emotional conflicts of the story together in a duel of wits that is in turn powerful, grotesque, and funny. This centerpiece, if you will, sets off the rest of the film very nicely, and prepares us for the poignance of the film’s second half.
Lerman carries the lead role with assurance—this is not a hapless victim role, but a portrait of a strong-minded young man whose willfulness seems to attract opposition. Gadon makes you believe in her strangely vulnerable and self-destructive character, which is not an easy task. Indignation transcends the time period in which it’s set to become a tough but compassionate drama about the dance of love, fear, and regret.